‘Soft Estate’ is a term used by the Highways Agency to describe those natural habitats that have evolved alongside motorways in this country. It is also the title of a fascinating new book with essays and artworks by Edward Chell, Sara-Jayne Parsons and Richard Mabey that explores some surprising links between the landscape gardeners and theorists of the picturesque in the eighteenth century and our present day motorway architecture. Finally, it is also an exhibition that has been touring the UK and is currently at Spacex in Exeter until early May this year. Jos Smith went along to talk to the artist behind Soft Estate, Edward Chell, at Spacex, to ask him about what drove him to reflect so thoughtfully on an aspect of our landscape that so many of us take for granted every day.
Jos Smith: This exhibition seems to have emerged from a wider project thinking about what you’ve called ‘the poetics of the motorway’. Could you say a little about the thinking behind this project?
Edward Chell: There was a time when I broke down on the motorway in about 2007 on my way back to Canterbury on the M2. And if you’re broken down on the M2 that’s it, there’s no way off it. You’re stuck. It’s just that one big artery. And that day everything was just a solid log jam, nothing moving either way. And it was just amazingly quiet.
You normally experience a motorway as moving at very high speed and you get this kind of drone, a thrum, inside the car. And there’s the motion parallax – things coming towards you and things flying out behind you – and you’re in this bubble, it’s quite a surreal, quite a soporific, experience. But then somehow we were stopped and the experience was suddenly very real. You could just hear all the sounds that you can never hear when you’re driving normally. Like insects, and the wind. The wind in that way that’s not just coursing by the wing-mirrors and the side windows. A completely different wind sound. And it was a bright sunny day and hearing all the insects, and the flowers – you could actually hear all the flowers moving!
I got out and just thought that these are really peculiar landscapes – I bet nobody’s really considering these landscapes, or documenting them. And nobody does, not even the Highways Agency really. People plant them, they employ biologists, specialists for different regions. When they do road development on the M25 or somewhere they’ll always employ somebody to oversee the planting, make sure that things are right, or at least that things can get a good foothold. But they don’t document them. And I just became aware of this kind of ‘other space’ and seeing it and experiencing it like this, I just thought I’ve got to do something about this.
But if there’s a theme that’s come out of this it’s more to do with thresholds and borderlands. It became quickly apparent that this motorway edge, this threshold was a frame between – whatever it is, big grey buildings, intense agrochemical farming, whatever – there’s this sort of threshold of wild flowers that acts as a border and a frame and it’s always slightly inaccessible. It’s this point of change, this isobar between one state of being and another state of being. And I guess thresholds have always fascinated me.
Anyway, I began talking to a friend, Dr Andrew Taylor, and I had no idea he had such an interest in motorways as well and there was a real spark there so basically we just decided to do a book together and that was the collection in 2011 In the Company of Ghosts: the Poetics of the Motorway.
Why do you think ‘edgelands’ have captured the attention of artist and authors lately?
That’s an interesting question because they definitely are capturing a cultural consciousness. The edgelands, by their very nature, just are odd spaces. They’re always in a state of flux and they’re never fully defined. That’s what makes them edgelands. They’re between something and something else and they’re always always totally contested. And I think that’s what makes them interesting spaces for artists as well. Anything that’s contested like that is, by its very nature, going to throw up critiques and dialogues and is going to have a different viewpoint depending on what side of the border you’re on. They’re in a sort of flux, and I think that’s what makes edgelands very interesting.
I’m really fascinated, for instance, in looking at some of the film noir and British realist cinema from the 1960s, partly from the bombsites that were appearing in those films. Bits of empty waste ground. I mean a lot of it has been built on now. Building development has this thing of civilising untamed ground and somehow concretising it and the fact that something is untamed and wild is really exciting and looking at some of the footage in early, post-war public information films looking at the English countryside it’s amazing how edgelands prevail everywhere.
The banlieue, for instance, the edge of Paris, that was the thing that really inspired and drove a lot of post-impressionist painting. Van Gogh painted those sluices and dock-gates, as did Monet. Well they were painting exactly the sort of thing that excites me now, in a slightly different way. They’re there and they’ll never cease to be there. And they’re important drivers of interest because they signify change.
Motorways are interesting ones because they were built at a time when Britain never had it so good and they’re emblematic of change and progress. And yet now, as Margaret Thatcher called it, this ‘great carbon economy’, which used to be such a desirable thing has come to stand for commodity fetishism. All these heavy goods now travelling on the roads and by rail – trucks coming in from Dover. We just consume such a lot. It’s giddying how much we consume when you think about it. And in a way motorways have become emblematic of that sort of thing.
They’re emblematic of the progress of the 60s but also this consumerism. Take flyovers, they intone progress, they’re about speed. They’re visual symbols of something that, even now, looks progressive, but maybe in a hundred years time nobody will be driving any more. They could become relatively obsolete. Already there are buildings like Forton Tower in the big M6 services: it’s a great progressive structure but now completely obsolete. It’s like a building you get in Stingray or Thunderbirds and sits there completely unused. It came out of a sort of optimism, and the motorways came out of the same optimism, and we’re looking back now and we’re saying perhaps that optimism was a little misguided.
You end your essay in Soft Estate with reference to Emerson and Horace Walpole, both describing nature. Interestingly Ken Worpole and Jason Orton also end their recent book The New English Landscape with a chapter on ‘Modern Nature’. Both of these offer views on nature that are a long way from the Wordsworthian tutelary spirit, or other versions of nature that we might be familiar with like the scientific, Linneaen taxonomy of nature. How would you describe our understanding of nature today?
I think Wordsworth wasn’t immune to the kind of materialist nature. I mean Wordsworth railed against all the larch plantations. That was one of his pet hates at the time. So he did see it as a kind of commodity and commerce as well.
I think maybe there’s a sort of sense in which today it’s a hybrid because you can’t disengage all those notions of landscape aesthetics and landscape and a sense of theology that are embedded in people like Wordsworth and Ruskin and others. To use Wordsworth’s words, I think we experience nature as two things, as a commodity, as those ‘emotions recollected in tranquillity’ (this sense in which you remember a thing and you’ve got this half imagined memory of what the landscape is) and then what it should be, and they’re two very different things. And we sort of put them together. We bring all that to landscape and nature. And I think there is this sense in which it’s changed, it’s degraded.
Marion Shoard shows that edgelands are about the lowest grade of landscape it terms of conservation classification. And yet they’re some of the most active. Some of the brownfield sites in Rainham marshes have got some of the most diverse forms of micro-bacteria life on the planet. I think someone nicknamed it the ‘brown rainforest’. What a great term!
And Robert Macfarlane, in The Wild Places, talks about these micro-scapes which are larger than that but they’re still small. They’re these pockets full of tiny ferns and other plants that grow in these cracks in the limestone pavement in the Burren. Even though walkers are probably tramping over them and nearly wiping them out, they’re like little wild places in their own right. And I thought that motorway verges look a little bit like those cracks and deep ravines, which are just tiny little micro-places, microhabitats. And I guess these spaces that Ken Worpole likes are a little bit like that as well. They’re touched by us as well, we’ve really engineered them but they’re wild.
I used to go picking mushrooms on Greenham Common, you know, right by where the Trident nuclear missiles protests were. I mean that’s a big change, you know, from trident missiles to … I think now it’s an SSSI!
A lot of the images you’ve painted and photographed are not from cars but from a perspective on foot on verges beside the motorway. And yet motorways are quite empty places in terms of pedestrians. Was this a practical or an aesthetic choice?
They are empty, very empty. They’re very odd places to put people, that’s true. You can’t stop on the motorway, you can’t have a picnic, you can’t camp on the hard shoulder. You’ll be picked up in five minutes and arrested. It’s just impossible. So they’re very bollarded in that sense. They preclude any form of occupation, unless you’re trespassing. Which I do, I do have to trespass sometimes. But I’ve worked with subcontractors as well, to get access. I’ve gone to the foreman on site to take me to inaccessible areas where road works have been going on. But you do have to trespass too. I’m very careful about that though because I know it’s a really, really dangerous place. Extremely dangerous.
But the decision to use these verges to look from, it’s really an aesthetic one. It’s the vegetation that grows there that fascinates me. It’s the vegetation that allows for all that wonderful, incidental detail and fragmentation and pixilation of light. Because don’t forget, these are paintings, it’s not about documentary, it’s not just reportage. They are, at the end of the day, paintings. They do attempt to transcend that subject matter and become something else.
I was talking to somebody recently and they said the paintings looked like Japanese art because you’re confronted with this mass of tiny little brush-marks and they create a slightly overwhelming sense. Because they’re big paintings done with a tiny little brush with oil paint on varnish. And there’s a sense in which you look very closely and as you move away there’s a kind of lustre.
I think it was the German physicist Helmholtz who called it lustre. Interestingly Seurat, the pointillist painter was very into Helmholtz, and other physicists, and part of what informed his painting was the idea of the eye mixing colour rather than the pallet mixing colour. And one of the qualities one gets with Seurat’s paintings is – it’s a little bit like Bridget Riley’s art – you get this sense that as you stand away there’s a certain point where the painting starts to fizz and the colours both coalesce and separate at the same time and in a way that’s what I’m aiming to do with mine. At a certain point you get a sort of fizz and they stop being one thing and start to be another. They coalesce into a sort of photograph. But that photograph is not the same as a photograph because it’s actually done or made through optical mixture which a photograph wouldn’t do. Even a pixelated photograph would do it very differently.
In terms of the theory of picture-making I think it was Aquinas who came up with this notion of Lux, Lumen and Splendor. Lux being the light source like the sun or a candle. Lumen being the transport of light, the space in which light is travelling, in a sense the light defining space. And the splendor was the bit where light then reflects back at the spectator. And so, in a sense, splendor has this idea of difference and painters have always been interested in pitting, whether it be a furry collar or a lovely quilt or dress with a linen cuff, with gold or silverware or glass jugs: all the different sort of reflective qualities. So, in a way paint takes great delight in imitating these visual stimuli, in deceiving the eye, paint takes great delight in that. When you see really good paintings it’s pretty amazing.
And something else happens as well. When paint does that, it imitates things, but it can also exist as paint, so for instance in a Manet painting you might get a really good description of glass being glass with flowers and reflections but at the same time you can see its paint. You can see the qualities of the brushstroke and you get that weird vacillation between paint and subject matter. And you never see them both at the same time. It’s a bit like Gombrich’s duck and rabbit. You might vacillate between the two very quickly but you’ll never see them both at the same time. In a way there’s a sense in which comprehension breaks down so it becomes incomprehensible. And that’s kind of like a moment of the sublime there. I mean Burke himself talked about comprehension breaking down with expanses and infinity because we’re not tuned to really take all these things in.
Gilpin talked about a ‘pause in the intellect’ too.
Exactly, a ‘pause in the intellect’ when things go beyond inquiry, beyond our ability to contain it in definitions and I think those are sublime moments. If we take the word ‘subliminal’ too or ‘sub-liminal’. I mean we were talking of thresholds and of edges and the ‘liminal’ is just before the edge before the limit. The edge of change. So there’s an interesting connection to the edgelands there as well.
And the other thing about these paintings is that we often experience these landscapes through motion parallax and through change. So for example, on a sunny day, if you look at the bank of a road it will appear with a certain sort of lustre a certain sort of colour and you look at it through the rear view mirror, because the incident light will be different, it will be a completely different colour. And if you crane your head round it will look different at that angle too, because the shadows change too. So it’s changing subliminally as you drive past, the texture and surface are changing, it’s a very material sort of experience actually. And in a way, what I’ve got with these paintings is, using tiny brushstrokes, tiny little marks, on this shiny surface, but with a fairly matt oil paint, you do get this sort of fluctuation depending on the incident light between a painting that looks like a positive image and then you occasionally get these blues which make it look like a negative image too. All these things are about these changes, these edges.